The Story of My Final Day in London

When we arrived in Paris on July 17, Aaron and I were unimpressed with the city and would have taken the next EuroStar back to England had the tickets not been upwards of $500. So we toughed it out through the disgusting humidity, rude people, dirty city, and sketchy metro, each moment counting down till we would be back in England again. Somehow the day finally arrived and we managed to navigate the metro back to Gare du Nord to catch the Chunnel home. We ended up arriving a solid two hours early for our train and people-watched until it was time to board, which is always fun. The only people I remember was this Romanian family, a mom, dad, and two girls, who missed their train by minutes. My heart sank for them: if I had to be stuck in Paris any longer than I was, I would look that defeated too.

But voilà! We boarded our train and back in London we were. As we spent the evening wandering the bank of the Thames, we decided on going back up to Cambridge for our final day abroad. We found shockingly cheap tickets—£6 both ways—and booked them for will call the next morning. We went to bed in our stuffy 22-person hostel room happy.

Not for long.

First off, there’s no sleeping in a 22-person hostel room that doesn’t have any windows. Our only source of light was a small lamp in a corner, and, as I discovered the next morning, a giant skylight overhead. I discovered this the next morning and not before because the sun rises in London at 4:30 AM, and with a skylight roughly the size of a blue whale, the sun was shouting hello at us when I had just managed to fall asleep.

So we were awake. We decide to head out early for our 10:28 train because our stuffy hostel was not an appealing place to hang around in the meantime. We take our time getting to the tube station, wandering in and out of the Borough Market and eventually we make it down to the London Bridge Underground station. I notice I don’t have my Oyster card, but Aaron thinks it won’t be a problem: he says he can go through the turnstiles, pass his Oyster card back to me, and I can use it, and we will be on our merry way. No can do: Aaron makes it through but not me, so I tell him to wait while I run back to the hostel. Halfway there I realize that while I have the key to the room Aaron has the key to the locker where my wallet is, so back down to the tube station I go, grab the key from Aaron, and run back to the hostel. Oyster card now in hand, I make it back to the station, and we’re on our merry way—ah—almost: my card is out of money, so I’m off to the ticket machine to top up. Easier said than done (naturally): the machine only takes coins but I’ve only got notes. So back to Aaron I go, who is patiently waiting just beyond the turnstiles, bum £2.50 from him, top up my card, and we are finally on our way.

It’s about 9:30 by this point.

We hop on the Northern Line towards High Barnet and get off two stops later at Moorgate. Our destination, Liverpool Street, is just one station east on the Metropolitan Line, and I, being ever constant in my ability to tell right from left and east from west (as well as utterly unwilling to let Aaron tell me I’m wrong), shuttle us onto the Westbound train. I realize my mistake, we get off at the next station, and head back in the right direction, now two stops away. No big deal—after all, it’s only around 9:45 and our train doesn’t leave for another three quarters of an hour.

Liverpool Street National Rain Service Station is not nearly as traversable as King’s Cross, and it takes us a minute to get ourselves oriented. We finally find the ticket machines, print out our tickets at 9:55 AM, and glance at the timetable to see what platform we should be going to. We aren’t in a rush. I am lazily perusing the timetable, Aaron is absently reading our tickets.

And then all hell breaks loose.

“Why does this say our train leaves at 9:58?” Aaron asks, inconsequentially, as if he was noting the weather. And then a few things happen very quickly. First, my mind jumps back to the night before when we sat in front of Aaron’s computer, debating whether to purchase tickets for the 9:58 or 10:28 train. I remember we were bantering back and forth—”Do we really want to get up that early?” “Do you really want to stay in this God-forsaken hostel any longer than we have to?”—but in those precious seconds I could not remember what we decided on. Secondly, I am hyperaware that I need to know the time, and I need to know it now. And thirdly, as I stare at the bright red letters reading 9:58 on that silly little prepaid ticket, the Romanian family standing in Gare du Nord flashes across my memory, and I realize in one sinking moment that I would very soon understand their looks of absolute defeat.

Aaron pulls out his phone, and I almost don’t know whether to laugh or panic when I read 9:57. I stare at it, dumbfounded, in utter disbelief, knowing that our tickets are only good for this train and not another one, and we have around 30 seconds to find it.

I run to the timetables. My eyes can’t scan fast enough. Aaron finds it first—”Platform 2!”—and I am running, literally running, through Liverpool Street station. I can see the gate, I can see the train, and I can see the red X in the turnstiles saying we’re too late. I jam my ticket in anyway, I shout—I actually shout at the turnstiles to let me through, but they refuse, and like something straight out of the movies our train pulls out of the station while we stare after it, out of the station, off to Cambridge, and there we were, locked out on the other side of the platform, our mouths hanging open in complete astonishment.

The lady on duty takes pity on us, and after hearing our story advises us to go to Information and plead our case. Information will have none of it: it was the 9:58 train or bust. They offer us the next train for four times the amount we already paid, and we decline.

That’s when I had my meltdown. Its our last day in London, we’re stuck in a train station with money wasted and nowhere to go. We decided to buy new tickets, we change our minds. I’m crying. We go back to the ticket machines, we walk away again. Aaron says I can go on ahead without him since it’s clear how much I wanted to go, and I give in. Back to the machines. I stick my debit card in, still crying. Denied. I try again. Denied. Crying harder. I try my credit card. Denied. The next train leaves in 14 minutes. Aaron, fed up and wanting to get me on that train, tries his card. Denied. We pool our cash. We are a little over a pound short. So there we are, in the middle of the Liverpool Street station, a huge queue behind us, I’m crying, he’s trying to console me, and everyone is staring.

I am unbelievably frustrated. Four rough days in Paris and now a ruined last day. I leave Aaron for a few minutes to have my cry and figure out what we’re going to do now. I come to terms with my disappointment—it wasn’t meant to be, we’ll spend the day in Waterstones and get dinner in a pub by Covent Gardens—and I return to him pacified. Unhappy, but pacified.

“Did you get my text?” he asks. I shake my head no. “There’s a train at 12:28 for only £15.”

Dammit. Everyone always says that as soon as you are content with your situation something good comes along, like a little reward for your longsuffering. I’m already weary with the day, it’s not even 10:45 AM, but I say yes, so back in we go to purchase the tickets.

We’ve got a little less than two hours to kill, so we browse the shops and grab coffee. That’s when we hear it over the loudspeaker: Attention, please. Trains to Straton Airport and Cambridge delayed. We are experiencing difficulties with broken overhead wires. Thank you for your patience while we attempt to rectify the situation. We tune this warning out the first few times it came over the loudspeaker, but finally acknowledge that perhaps the line broke on the 9:58 train and it’s for the best we aren’t on it. But what a shame for those people whose trains were being cancelled!

Yes, shame.

It’s 12:10 now and we decide to check our platform—one missed train was enough for one day, thank you very much, so being twenty minutes early and ready to run to the turnstiles seemed to be the perfect course of action. We scan the timetables: trains at 12:18, 12:31, 12:58, 13:10, 13:30…. We check again. We check our tickets. We look at each other. We run to information. It’s 12:15.

“We’re on the 12:28 to Cambridge,” I told the lady, as fast as the words will tumble out of my mouth, “but it’s not on the timetable; what platform do we need to go to?”

She whips out a map of the tube and begins to recite a speech she will be giving dozens of times today. “12:28 to Cambridge is cancelled. Take the tube—” swish, a circle around the Liverpool Street station, “—to King’s Cross—” swish, another circle around the King’s Cross station, “—and take the train from there.”

We’re running. Down the stairs, into the Underground, gliding effortlessly on to a Metropolitan train already waiting at the station.  We’re three stops away at it’s 12:19. The tube is so calm compared to us: it unhurriedly opens it doors and closes them again, and we are instantly enveloped by the rhythmic silence the tube makes. The soothing overhead voices comes on to inform us that, yes, This is a Metropolitan Line terminating at Amersham. The next station is Moorgate. We sit. Moorgate, Barbican, Farringdon, King’s Cross, and we’re running again, up the stairs, out of the turnstiles, wildly scanning for arrows leading us in the right direction. Then we’re out in the London air, instantly disoriented, since we’ve never taken the Metropolitan to King’s Cross and actually don’t know where we are. But there’s King’s Cross station, across the street, and we’re not waiting for the little green man to tell us to walk, we don’t even bother to take the crosswalk, we are cutting and jumping and diving in front of honking taxis and weaving through crowds, with my Costa Coffee held high in one hand and my National Rail ticket gripped tightly in my other hand, and we’re inside.

King’s Cross doesn’t have a 12:28 train to Cambridge, but they do have a 12:44 train to King’s Lynn, which is ever better. We spill our story out to the nearest employee—”Liverpool station—sent us here—Cambridge—take the King’s Lynn train?”—and he, unphased: “Yeah, alright” and we are on the platform at 12:32, with 12 minutes to spare.

The beauty and peace of Cambridge was never so stunning as that day, as Aaron and I walked through Grantchester Meadows with the warm afternoon sun sinking lazily behind us. The day melted away with walking and shopping and reading, until we caught the train back to London—with only a slight amount of complication, and only a tiny bit of running, but nothing we couldn’t handle.

Cheers, England. Until next time.

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